Laptop Computer Ergonomics

Laptop Computers - an Hour of Prevention is Worth a Lifetime of Cure

Laptops are a wonderful technological tool that can increase productivity and creativity. Use of laptop computers does present the potential for significant employee health concerns, however, as laptops do not provide proper ergonomic positioning for the user.

The information below explains these ergonomic concerns and offer recommendations to prevent these health problems from occurring.

Increased use of computers for long periods coupled with the poor ergonomic design of many computer workstations is now widely recognized to be a leading cause of soft tissue and nerve injuries. While these injuries may not have the dramatic impact of many other types of work-related injuries (e.g. strains, sprains, slips and falls), they can be extremely painful and debilitating to the employee. It is difficult, time-consuming, and expensive to treat these types of injuries, so prevention is the key.

In addition, now that Occupational Safety regulators often view providing proper ergonomic workstations as a duty of the employer, workers' compensation claims for these types of injuries is on the rise. Musculoskeletal disorders now account for 34 percent of all lost workday illnesses and injuries. These disorders account for $1 of every $3 spent on workers' compensation; the cost of payments for carpal tunnel syndrome claims alone increased 60 percent in North Carolina from 1993 to 1994.

The four fundamental problems with the design of laptops are:

  1. The small keyboards cause strain on the wrists.
  2. The screen is too close to the user, which causes eye strain.
  3. The keyboard is connected to the screen; thies either causes neck strain (when the laptop is placed low enough to allow for reasonably good wrist/arm positioning), or excessive wrist/arm strain (when the laptop is placed so that the screen is at eye level to prevent neck strain).
  4. The monitor is too small and/or lacks sufficient resolution for many people to use without causing eye strain.

All of these problems can be remedied at a very reasonable cost. The following recommendations are offered in hopes that all university departments will incorporate them whenever purchasing laptops:

Inform all laptop users that, from an ergonomic standpoint, laptops are designed only for occasional use (e.g., occasional weekends, while traveling, for classroom presentations, etc.).

If the laptop will serve as the user's primary computer, or will be used frequently or for extended periods, then the following items should also be provided with each laptop computer:

  1. A separate, full-sized keyboard and pointing device. Most laptops these days are already equipped with a port for a separate keyboard and mouse. There are many sources for keyboards; our own ASU Bookstore offers a partial-split ergonomic keyboard for the very competitive price of only $40, and other keyboards for $15 to $44. The Bookstore also has mice and trackballs available for $15 to $35. (2002 prices).
  2. A monitor riser to raise the monitor screen to eye level. There are many types of risers available at many different price ranges ($6 to $100). A simple and effective riser can be made by stacking books under the laptop computer until the appropriate height is achieved; OR
  3. A separate monitor of adequate size and resolution to be comfortable for the user. If the monitor is raised to the proper level (see item 2 above) and is comfortable for the user, then a separate monitor is not absolutely necessary from an ergonomic standpoint. If in the future the user finds that s/he is experience eye strain or pain in the neck, shoulders, or back, however, then the need for a monitor should be re- evaluated. As a user ages s/he may experience changes in vision that may require a larger screen, different positioning of the monitor (e.g. bifocals wearers sometimes find a lower screen more comfortable), or glasses focused specifically for the distance to the monitor.
  4. A "docking station" is not an ergonomic aid in and of itself, but may be extremely helpful in encouraging use of the separate keyboard and/or monitor. For persons who plan to carry their laptops home or to class, a docking station would allow them to remove and replace the laptop without having to re-attach cables. Without a docking station, hooking up the separate keyboard/monitor each time would most likely become too much of a bother, so the ergonomic advantages of having the separate keyboard/monitor would be lost.
  5. If not already owned, additional equipment (e.g. ergonomic chair, desk, keyboard tray, etc) may be necessary to allow users to position their bodies properly (i.e. forearms and hands parallel or lower to the floor, thighs parallel or higher to the floor, monitor at eye level). Please note that many slide-out trays provided with modular office furniture do not offer proper ergonomic placement of the arms, and are often too short to allow the pointing device (mouse/trackball) to be on the same level as the keyboard. While keyboard trays are often unnecessary, an excellent quality keyboard tray that the Industrial Hygienist recommends is the WorkRite. This is available online from many "ergonomic" vendors, or at a discount from WJ Office City. These types of trays typically cost $200 to $300 (not including ASU or State Contract discounts).

The Health Promotions staff can conduct free individual workstation assessments and/or provide brief informational sessions for any ASU employee.

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Office of Environmental Health, Safety and Emergency Management
P.O. Box 32112
Boone, NC, 28608 USA
(828) 262-4008

Business Services Building
1039 State Farm Road
Boone, NC

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